The symbol of the Netherlands keeps turning: Working windmills in one of the oldest industrial areas in the world

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Katerina Bulovska
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From traditional wooden clogs to the wooden houses built in characteristic Dutch architectural style, one picturesque village near Amsterdam offers a unique glimpse into Dutch culture and history. Besides the typical Dutch appearance, what makes Zaanse Schans so special are its windmills dotted along the Zaan river.

Windmills have become emblematic of the Netherlands, but not because the country has the biggest number of windmills. In the 17th century, of the approximately 200,000 windmills across Europe, only 10,000 were in Dutch territories. Responsible for the instant connection of the windmills with the Netherlands is the Dutch Golden Age of Arts. In this period, windmills became the central motif for many painters and a popular object in Dutch landscape paintings. Among them was also the great master Rembrandt, who painted perhaps the most famous windmill painting, displayed in National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, The Mill.

In 1871, the French impressionist painter Claude Monet visited the village and painted 24 paintings of the area. Impressed by its beauty, in a letter to his friend he wrote: “There is enough here to paint for an entire lifetime.” Today, the picturesque Zaanse Schans in the Zaan district is an open air museum. The iconic eight windmills in the village dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century had become some of the most visited attractions in the country.

Windmills of Zaanse Schans. Author: Murdockcrc. CC BY 3.0

The oldest windmills that were built had a defensive function against the army of Spain when the Dutch were fighting for their independence in the Eighty Years War. When the war ended and the Dutch Republic gained status as a free and independent nation, the region was turned into an industrial area, counting around 600 active windmills.

Windmills Zaanse Schans. Author: Peter K Burian. CC BY-SA 4.0

The wind-powered factories worked on materials brought from Amsterdam, one of the most important ports in the world at that time, producing flour, cocoa powder, machine-sawn wood, paper, ground spices, oil from seeds, dyes and many other items. By harnessing the power of nature, production dramatically increased and the Zaan region became one of the richest in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is one of the oldest industrial areas on Earth.

Windmill De Huisman in 2006

As the Industrial Revolution was coming to an end, windmills were being made obsolete by the advent of more advanced machinery. A remaining eight windmills still use wind power to perform their old functions, though not out of necessity, but to continue Dutch tradition.

Windmill De Kat in 2007. Author: I, CrazyPhunk. CC BY-SA 3.0

For instance, the windmill named “De Kat,” meaning “The Cat,” is the oldest functioning windmill in the world that makes paint. It was built in 1646, damaged by a fire in 1782, and restored in the 1970s. Originally, it produced oil for painting and nowadays with the power of the wind, the granite stones turn limestone into a fine powder that is mixed with pigments in order to get the desired color.

Windmill Het Jonge Schaap. Author: Quistnix. CC BY-SA 2.5

Another windmill that functions as a factory in the village is “De Huisman” (The Houseman). In the past, the windmill ground mustard seeds and tobacco, but today only produces mustard. The wood-sawing windmills in the village are “De Gekroonde Poelenburg” (The Crowned Poelenburg), “Het Jonge Schaap” (The young sheep) and “Het Klaverblad”(The Cloverleaf), while the windmills “De Os”( The Ox) and “De Bonte Hen”(The Spotted Hen) still press seeds to produce oil. The village of Zaanse Schans, with its inhabited wooden houses, farmsteads, fields, and working windmills give clear image how the Dutch people lived centuries ago.

Outdoor Museum Zaanse Schans, Zaanstad, Province of North-Holland, Netherlands. Author: Zairon. CC BY-SA 4.0

The windmills are of great importance for the Dutch people and even have a dedicated event to celebrate their existence. National Windmill Day takes place every year on the second Saturday and Sunday in May and during this national holiday, all the windmills in the country, including those from the Zaanse Schans village, are nicely decorated with flags and colorful flowers. It is the most majestic period of the year to visit Zaanse Schans.